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Land and Legend: The Map of Cuauhtinchan Number 2

This article first appeared in a different form in Archaeology, Volume 62 Number 2, March/April 2009.

The name of the Mexican village of Oxtotipan in the local Nahuatl language means “Town on Top of the Caves,” and that's exactly what it is.
Twenty-four miles east of the city of Puebla, it sits on a high bluff that is peppered with caves. On its south side are caverns where the villagers pray on holy days, beneath a white limestone cliff that looks like a tumbling waterfall. To the east the village overlooks a hundred more caves in a 300-feet deep limestone canyon, a half-mile long gorge cut by a spring-fed river that gushes from the canyon wall and roars downstream.
Two thousand years ago, Prehispanic worshipers turned the canyon caves into a necropolis. They carved their entrances into semi-circles and rectangles; chipped chambers into their walls; pierced their roofs for sunlight, and scooped out their floors for graves.
I'm perched on a ceremonial platform on the canyon lip with Miguel Medina Jaen, an archaeologist with Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Arqueologia e Historia (INAH). From here we can see the end of the canyon, the remains of the ancient settlement of Xochiltenango, and the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley beyond. On the horizon, almost lost in the dry season smog, are the four great volcanoes on the Valley's rim: Malinche, Orizaba, Iztaccíhuatl, and Popocatepétl.
 For millennia the Valley has been a fertile crossroads between the Basin of Mexico, the Gulf Coast, the lowland jungles, and the Oaxaca Plateau. It was an arena for migration, settlement, and warfare, and the site of the pilgrimage city of Cholula, home to the Quetzalcoatl cult and the largest pyramid in the world. Medina, 37, a heavyset man with a full black beard and a kindly manner, knows the Valley well. He scoured it for three years in the 1990s on a 190-square mile survey for Pennsylvania State University's Proyecto Atcatzingo-Tepeaca, and then he catalogued the region's caves for the Mesoamerican Research Foundation. As he labored, he consulted a copy of the Map of Cuauhtinchan No. 2, a dazzling sixteenth-century bark-paper map that has beguiled generations of scholars.
Medina is carrying a copy of the map, and he shows me how it portrayed Oxtotipan. Amongst a slew of busy people and mysterious signs, is a string of white rocks spewing water, a flowering plant, a tree, and a dog-headed mound; beside it sit a man with rain drops above his head - the village's ruler, Lord 13 Rain - his lady, and the date he captured the throne, 3 Reed in the indigenous calendar, AD 1183. The Map of Cuauhtinchan No. 2 (MC2) is the size of a tablecloth and is covered with over 700 glyphs. It was painted in the town of Cuauhtinchan, “House of the Eagle,” nine miles from where we're standing. It tells how the people of Cuauhtinchan flew from the seven-chambered cave of Chicomoztoc, conquered their enemies, and established their new home. Painted with a Prehispanic visual vocabulary of symbols, visual puns, and pictograms, it combines myth, history, and a territorial map once considered so reliable that it was used as evidence in colonial courts of law. Stored for centuries in the Cuauhtinchan town archives and declared a National Historic Monument in 1963, the MC2 languished for years in private collections. But recently a new owner funded the most comprehensive study of the map ever made, and a new wave of scholars are joining those who, for decades, have pored over copies to puzzle out its meaning. 
The MC2, Medina tells me, is invaluable for archaeologists. It can serve not only as a guide to the landscape, but to an ancient way of thinking where boundaries between the material and the mystical did not exist.
He points across the canyon to a cave mouth carved into the tri-lobed symbol of an altepetl, the indigenous Nahuatl word for settlement or town. Altepetl is a contraction of atl, “water,” and petl, “mountain,” reflecting the Mesoamerican belief that mountains are sacred, hollow vessels where the rain god Tlaloc stored water before releasing it through clouds, springs, and caves. The canyon cave echoes not only the many altepetls painted on the MC2, but its interior was sculpted into seven chambers, replicating Chicomoztoc, the people of Cuauhtinchan's ancestral cave so prominently depicted on the map. “The person who made the map had an image in his mind of the geographical relief, the historical events, and the mythological aspects,” Medina says. “The map brings together all of those things into a single document.”
After the Spaniards conquered Mexico they torched the indigenous people's bark paper codices, destroying centuries of chronicles, astronomical calendars, and religious manuscripts. Their efforts were so thorough that only 15 Prehispanic codices have survived.
The codex format, however, lived on. In certain areas, surviving Indian nobles commissioned new codices for religious ceremonies, as proof of their historic prestige, and for use in legal disputes. Painted on folding bark paper books, on large sheets of bark paper, or on linen canvases called lienzos, they drew on oral histories, memories of pre-conquest documents and perhaps even codices that had been hidden from Spanish eyes. Indigenous artists called tlaquiloque painted them well into the seventeenth century; some 500 colonial codices are known today.
Many of them came from Cuauhtinchan. Commissioned by the town's seven noble families, they include four Maps of Cuauhtinchan, each telling a slightly different version of the Cuauhtinchan story, and an illustrated Nahuatl written narrative, the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, which is an invaluable key to many of the events and symbols on the maps.
The MC2 is the largest and most ornate Cuauhtinchan map. It is divided into two parts: on its left half is a tale of migration and war; on the right, a depiction of territory, alliances, and space. The MC2's events begin in the year 1 Reed, AD 1173, after the Tolteca-Chichimecas in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley rebelled against their overlords, the Olmeca-Xicallanca. They captured the city-state of Cholula, but final victory eluded them.
Two priests, Icxicoatl, “Serpent Head Foot” - who on the map has a snake's face for a foot - and Quetzaltehueyac, “Large Quetzal Feather Lips” - whose mouth sports a tall green feather - set out from Cholula. They travel to Chicomoztoc, home of the Cuauhtinchan Chichimecs, to ask their aid in battle. 
Seven groups of Chichimecs join the war. They fly from their womb-like cave behind their patron goddess Itzpapalotl, “Obsidian Butterfly,” who brandishes, as a battle standard, a severed leg. Several carry tlaquimilolli, holy bundles containing the group's most sacred objects. Their footprints follow a serpentine road toward the Valley of Mexico and on to Cholula. Along the way they pass such places as Tequaztepetl, “Mountain Where the Earth Eats Humans,” and Omitemaloyan, “Place of the Abscessed Bone.” They sacrifice animals and humans, swirl in whirlwinds, battle demons, pray to the sacred bundles, and perform dozens of other still undeciphered feats. At Cholula they thwart their enemies, and the city's grateful lords grant them a new homeland.
On the map's right half, the Chichimecs flourish. They walk a road that encircles their enormous new territory. They settle in the foothills of the Sierra de Tepeaca and sanctify their settlement with a New Fire Ceremony, kindling flames of transformation and new beginnings while a jaguar and an eagle watch from a nearby cave. Forsaking the animal skin garb, bows, and arrows of hunter-gatherers, they don the white cotton robes of settled farmers and ally with their neighbors. But then comes a downfall to which the map only alludes: in 1458 invaders from the nearby town of Tepeyaca rob Cuauhtinchan of land, riches, and political clout.
The MC2 served as witness of Cuauhtinchan's glorious past. Chicomoztoc, the holy city of Cholula, and Cuauhtinchan dominate the document, spotlighting Cuauhtinchan's storied ancestry and its long tenancy on land won in war. The map may have served as evidence when Cuauhtinchan unsuccessfully sued the Tepeyacans to return their land in 1546-47, or possibly in 1628, when the map's profane portrayals of sacrifice would no longer have risked Spanish ire.
The codices slipped away from the Cuauhtinchan municipal archives one by one - the MC1 to Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale, the MC3 and MC4 to Mexico City's Biblioteca Nacional de Antropolgia e Historia.
The MC2 stayed in Cuauhtinchan until 1933, when it was placed in the Museo Regional de Puebla. It next showed up in the collection of the prominent Mexican architect Carlos Obregon Santacilia.
By then the map was frayed, worn in two, worm-eaten and faded, yet it was still magnificent. When the late philanthropist and banking heiress Angeles Espinosa Yglesias saw it in the Santicilia home, “its beauty literally stunned me,” she later wrote. “Before me lay a tangible part of the history of my country that had to be preserved, interpreted, and understood.” She bought the map in 2001.
Espinosa Yglesias, founder of the spectacular Amparo Museum in Puebla, Mexico, was a board member of Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. When she told the Center's director, John Coatsworth that she wanted to fund a study of the MC2, Coatsworth introduced her to David Carrasco, head of the university's Moses Mesoamerican Archives and Research Project and a leading scholar of Mesoamerican religion.
This past spring I met Carrasco in his office, where a large reproduction of the MC2 graces one wall. “When I looked at the map for the first time at the home of Angeles Espinoza Yglesias, it kind of glowed, because of the color and the material,” Carrasco said. “There was this old object that still seemed alive.”
Carrasco is tall and lanky, with a beard, ear stud, and long hair to his collar. He's a tenacious thinker, and when he gets an idea, he runs it to earth. “I felt right away that as I began to survey these 700 glyphs you needed a team of people who knew Mesoamerica and knew their disciplines well. And they would come at this map.”
He assembled a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnobotanists, historians of art and religion, and an archaeoastronomer. Many had written about the MC2 before, including Mexico's Keiko Yoneda, a Japanese expatriate who has studied the map for more than thirty years. But this was the MC2's first multi-disciplinary dissection. The researchers scoured scores of sources for clues to its meaning, including preconquest codices, colonial documents, census records, and the folkways of indigenous people in Guatemala, the Caribbean, the United States, and Brazil.
While they worked, conservationist Marina Straulino cleaned and stabilized the map's fraying fibers, smoothed its wrinkles, and mounted it on a wood frame. She used infrared and ultraviolet imaging to create a digital version that filled in its worn gaps and restored faded glyphs to view.
The results appear in Cave, City and Eagle's Nest: The Map of Cuauhtinchan No. 2. It is a lavishly illustrated book that presents the map in close-ups, enlarged fold-outs, and a one-third scale reproduction in a pouch inside the back cover. Fifteen essays probe the map's gods, dates, plants, and events, the meaning of its rituals, and the lineages of the people portrayed.
Carrasco's main intent was to plumb the worldview of the map's creators. “As a historian of religions, I'm interested in what I call 'the imagination of matter,' the ways that people imagine the world that they live in and the way the material world impacts their imagination.” The Mesoamerican material world “with its stones and its water and its mountains and its trees” guided their conception of time and space, how they organized their societies, laid out their settlements, and worshipped their gods.
Carrasco cites the work of Mexican historian Alfredo Lopez Austin, who first described the core beliefs that form the basis of Mesoamerican culture. These include a fertile Mother Earth; creatures and plants permeated with divine matter; rulers who communicate with the supernatural; and a multi-layered cosmos of heaven, earth, and the underworld centered on an axis mundi, represented as a towering Tree of Life growing from a holy mountain.
The archaeological record we see today reflects this all-pervading “cosmovision.” Each altepetl strove to replicate the axis mundi and to position itself in the landscape at a sacred center. They built mountain-shaped pyramids atop springs that evoked Tlaloc and caves that signified their earthly birth. They positioned their ceremonial centers so that on solstices and equinoxes the sun rose and set behind prominent peaks, marking the time for planting, harvest, and sacrifice. 
One of Carrasco's scholars, Harvard archaeologist Ann Seiferle-Valencia, spent part of 2004 and 2005 in Cuauhtinchan, excavating the remains of a Middle to Late Formative (800-100 BC) ceremonial center. She discovered that the temples at Cuauhtinchan - like those at Xochitecatl, a major center 30 miles to the northwest, and at Totimehuacan, a smaller community 10 miles to the west - faced westward toward Popocatepétl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. At all three sites, as a sign of veneration, the temple facades facing the volcanoes were densely inlaid with thin slate slabs, rather than the rough river cobbles and adobe bricks that covered their other three sides. (At Xochitecatl, one pyramid was actually a miniature version of Popocatepétl.) Metates - corn grinding stones - of volcanic andesite were incorporated into the buildings, uniting the worship of maize with that of the sacred mountains from which their builders thought it came.
When the Cuauhtinchan Chichimecs arrived in 1173, they, too, saw their altepetl as a sacred center. In Cave, City, and Eagle's Nest, Osvaldo Garcia-Goyco notes that on the MC2, a Tree of Life may be dimly visible inside the cave that symbolizes Cuauhtinchan. On the cave's threshold is a blue whirlpool, an entrance to the aquatic underworld where the Tree is rooted; the jaguar and eagle who watch from within live in the world of the Tree's earthly trunk, while the eagle also soars skyward among its heavenly branches.
Another new book, published in Mexico by the Mesoamerican Research Foundation, also focuses on the MC2 and sacred landscape. The Map of Cuauhtinchan II: Between Science and the Sacred explores the MC2's depiction of caves and mountains through essays by eight scholars.
I met the Foundation's chairman, Tim Tucker, last spring in Puebla. Tucker, 70, is an expatriate Arizonan with a lifelong passion for archaeology and an interest in ancient caves, sparked on his first visit to Puebla in 1962 when he saw how the locals still used them for worship. In 1968 he read a pioneering study of the MC2 by Danish anthropologist Bente Bittmann Simons and became convinced that the map could lead to archaeological discoveries. He hired a retired CIA map expert to link the MC2 and the region's terrain, and he has steered the MRF's support to research on sacred mountains, caves, and settlements.
Tucker has a narrow face and grey hair. He speaks in a measured cadence, as if he has weighed every word. “The map was a handmaiden, a documentary piece of work of historical cartography that always guided us.”
In the new book, he and Medina write about the fourteen sacred bundles on the MC2. They're sheltered in reed shrines or caves, which Tucker and Medina trace to specific, long-established holy sites that would have leant stature to the newly arrived Chichimecs when they chose them as places for prayer. 
Medina took me to Acatzingo Viejo, a vanished settlement which appears on the MC2 as three caves in a wall of rock, with its founders, Itztlapoca, “Obsidian Smoke,” and Apanecatl, “Water Headdress,” sitting beside it with a sacred bundle in a shrine.
We park the car and climb a low rise. The site is now a collection of farm fields, but the landmarks around it on the MC2 remain. To the west is the snow-capped volcano Orizaba; in the middle distance is Coatepec, “Serpent Hill,” shown on the map as a snakeheaded mound sticking out its tongue. Beyond is Cuauhtepec, “Eagle Hill,” painted as a plateau with an eagle's head, where Cuetzpaltzin, “Lord 12 Lizard,” sits. Beside him is the date when Cuauhtinchan conquered him --1 House, AD 1441. Aptly, the glyph bristles with darts.
For centuries, this was a holy place. Near us are some thick rock walls, the remains of a colonial chapel. Across the field is an unexcavated Prehispanic ceremonial complex. Test pits revealed its two buildings and circular platform were built in four phases, each begun, Medina suspects, when the 52-year Mesoamerican calendar started a new cycle. Medina describes the complex as a “micro-cosmos,” sited to take advantage of the panoramic view and its place atop a nearby low bluff, where Medina shows me some caves he discovered, cut into the cliff face. There once were seven caves here, another recreation of Chicomoztoc. Acatzingo Viejo's temple, built amidst a sacred panorama, atop an earthly womb of origin, was a complex of undeniable power.
Cuauhtinchan is about a dozen miles from Acatzingo Viejo. It was not yet noon when I arrived, but the sun was scorching and a hot wind swept from the southwest. The streets were nearly deserted, motionless save for the fluttering colored plastic flags still strung high across the pavement, remnants of the town's three-day New Years bash. 
After the conquest, the Spanish herded Cuauhtinchan's people into a new settlement where they could be more easily controlled and indoctrinated with the Catholic faith. Their cave lies some miles above the town; any artifacts left within are buried under tons of bat guano; any wall paintings are lost in the soot from countless torches. But the sacred center of Cuauhtinchan still exists, recreated in the heart of the conquistador's realm.
Rising over the north end of town is a landmark of the Conquest's new order, the bell tower of San Juan Bautista Church. Built in the 1570s, it is one of the oldest churches in the Americas. Its altarpiece soars 45 feet to the  vaulted ceiling, and from its belfry one can see for miles.
As I nosed about, Pedro Torija, the sacristan, arrived to prepare for a baptism that was soon to start. A wiry man with graying temples and a thick moustache, he proudly unlocked the cloister's tall wooden doors to show me another handiwork of sixteenth century Cuauhtinchan. High on the wall of the cloister's covered walkway is a painting of the Annunciation, a copy of a European print. An eagle and jaguar, dead ringers for the pair on the MC2, stand guard on either side. In the painting, behind Mary, is a canopy bed, sheltering a pillow that stands upright, clearly a tlaquimilolli - a knotted sacred bundle made of spotted jaguar skin. And a fountain  stands in the cloister courtyard, topped with a towering stone eagle and rimmed with jaguar heads that look down on its basin of water; its stone bears traces of red paint, evoking Chicomoztoc's red tinted cave. Here, in the spiritual heart of the conquering colonial power, the mapmakers live on.
Copyright © 2009 Tom Gidwitz